'The Walking Dead' Showrunner Goes Inside the Season 8 Premiere

Scott M. Gimple talks with THR about those apparent time jumps, Father Gabriel's future and the "All-Out War" ahead.
Courtesy of AMC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the season eight premiere, "Mercy," of AMC's The Walking Dead.]

AMC's The Walking Dead returned for its eighth season Sunday with a stage-setter of an episode that previewed the long-awaited "All-Out War" arc from creator Robert Kirkman's comics, while also paying homage to its past, as the premiere also served as its landmark 100th episode overall.

The episode featured Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) leading the charge against Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). And naturally, not all went according to plan as their elaborate attack plan failed to take down the dictator, despite taking out a number of his Saviors.

When the bullets stopped flying, Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) was trapped with Negan, as Team Family had to regroup and figure out a different way to restore order to the new world.

Elsewhere, the opener featured at least one, maybe two, time jumps that showed both a red/teary-eyed Rick, as well as a considerably aged version of the former sheriff. Should those scenes indeed be time jumps, it would be setting up the post-Negan story from the comics in which the story makes a considerable jump forward.  

The premiere, directed by exec producer and zombie master Greg Nicotero, featured a number of scenes that were reminiscent of The Walking Dead's pilot as a way to celebrate its heavily promoted 100th episode. (The late George A. Romero and stuntman John Bernecker, the latter of whom died on the show's Atlanta set, both received tribute card dedications.)

Below, showrunner Scott M. Gimple addresses those potential time jumps, the larger theme for season eight and what else to expect from season eight.

As you were plotting this seminal arc from the comics of "All-Out War," is there a larger theme within that this season?

It's boiled down to holding on. Holding on to not only parts of yourself that you have to let go of a little to do what needs to be done, but even physically holding on, mentally holding onto your hope, your bravery, your resolve. Over and over again, it's holding on for one more day and another and another. It's a very heroic thing to try to hold on to what you have, who you are and the resolve that you had when you started an incredible enterprise.

Is "All-Out War" a half- or full-season story?

The difference between the first half and the second — I won't say story-wise what is resolved and when — but the tone and the stakes are very different between the first and second half of the season. There's a left-hand turn that really focuses things up in a very different and weird way.

How much did our current political climate influence this season, given how much of it is Rick trying to take down a dictator? 

I can see why [that's a question people would say that. But anyone who watches and thinks we're talking about current events, it would be strange to think about since the comics came out years ago. Yet there are certain things we did this season that people may compare to current events, even though it isn't. It's just about human experience. 

Rick and Negan had their first face-off. Why doesn't Rick just shoot him when he had the chance?

What shouldn't be glossed over is Rick is offering surrender to everyone else. He wants them to, more or less, be on his side after that. If he just shot Negan there, that would have been a shortcut to the war. He was making a play to not be in full violence with these people because you see what happens after that. The next step for everybody is pretty heavy and intense. If in fact Negan's other lieutenants had given up, it would have been over. 

Father Gabriel is trapped in the trailer with Negan. Is that the start of a longer story or will it be dealt with quickly? In short, is Father Gabriel doomed?

It certainly looks like he's doomed. It's the beginning of a story. Both characters have things to do and a path to tread and things to befall them. We will play out that story.

There were a few flash-forwards in this episode. Is the red-eyed/teary-eyed Rick in the current timeline and the bearded Rick in the future? Or is there a third timeline? 

It is OK to be confused. If people came away from that confused, I'd hope they'd hold on because all will be revealed in due time.

So, are there three different time periods in the premiere?

Are they time periods? What are they? What are we seeing? Are we jumping through time or is it something else? All will be revealed.

So, it's a dream?

A dream or it could be the flash-forward, or it could be … I'm going to be quiet now!

In the past, you've played with structure — like with Morgan in the end credits, telling that story over years of time. Will the flash-forwards follow a similar structure? Why bring those in now?

I will neither confirm nor deny what they are but you will know halfway through the season what they are, why they're there, what they mean and what they mean for the future of the show. Answers will be had around episode eight or nine.

Andrew Lincoln has said that there's a world in which the show exists without him. Looking to the future, is there a point in which that could become a reality?

Anything is possible. We want to keep doing this show for a while but you never know. It's hard for me to talk about the far-flung future and know one way or another. But this is a show that shoots itself in the foot on a regular basis and it's our job to make it a great show. Anything is possible. Jon Bernthal is now The Punisher [on Netflix]; we have a Starfleet Captain [in Sonequa Martin-Green on CBS All Access' Star Trek: Discovery]. You never know. Everything is on the table always in service to the story.

How does this premiere set the tone for what's to come from the remainder of the season?

This is more for the first half of the season, but it's about throwing the throttle open. These first four episodes are the most intense string of episodes that we may have ever had. Then it only takes a breath. It's a very intense season. It's a very unusual season for us. It's incredibly propulsive. There are so many people in every episode. This is physically the hardest season we've had for everyone, cast and crew. It's getting exponentially more intense and the first four episodes speak to that. It's that kind of season. This is the most intense season, it's a very action-forward season — and there's emotion in between all the action. Things start to build up from episodes five to eight but these first four, people are still feeling these first four.

Anything else coming up that we should be discussing?

There's an extended episode smack in the middle of the first half of the season. There's some interesting characters ahead, maybe in the second half of the season we'll see some unusual stuff like that. There's some pretty astounding comic moments brought to life that I've been looking forward to seeing on TV for a long time.

As for "interesting characters" ahead, could Alpha and the Whisperers be coming sooner, rather than later? Have you talked to Nicotero about how you could do that?

You're talking about how the Whisperers dress? That will be super ruined for people, there is no way not to. That was such a great reveal in the book. It was so cool.

On a different note, you've boarded Fear the Walking Dead as an EP and the spinoff is going to cross over with the flagship, which Kirkman originally said wouldn't happen. Rumor is Michael Cudlitz may appear in Houston in the Fear timeline or Michael Greyeyes could show up in Alexandria.

Can you comment?

I don't want to take any rumors down. I think people should talk about it. But I want people to see it when it's on TV.

What did you think of The Walking Dead's 100th episode? Share your thoughts in the comments, below. For more Walking Dead coverage, bookmark THR.com/WalkingDead.

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